Reagan: The Hollywood Years by Marc Eliot (Three Rivers Press, $17.00, 375 pages)
“(The Hollywood social scene) was… made up of Republicans. The Powells, the Murphys, the Steins, the Bergens, the Taylors, all were conservative-leaning Republicans; Reagan was the only die-hard registered Democrat among them.”
It’s hard to associate the following words with our mental perception of President Ronald Reagan: hardy Democrat, union leader and uber-supporter, heavy drinker and womanizer… And yet, this is the picture of a young Reagan – the man before he met and married Nancy, painted by Marc Eliot, who specializes in writing biographies of famous actors. It’s the shock attached to this portrait of an untamed young man who later became a stabilizing leader that will make the prospective reader of this account choose sides.
Some will refuse to read or even consider Reagan: The Hollywood Years since it does not mesh with the majority view of Ronald Reagan, the man. This is a person’s right, just as it’s fair for some of us to refuse to read (or believe) the worst stories about the Kennedys. Some will love that the account casts a disparaging view of an early Reagan; although, Eliot does not deny that Reagan experienced tremendous personal growth after marrying Nancy, settling down in every sense of the word, and entering politics. And some, as I did, will find it to be a very engaging read, a quick read except for the fact that so many of the actors mentioned will be unknown to anyone not alive in the 1940s. (You’ll need to have ready access to Wikipedia to continually look up the facts about actors and actresses; very few of whom are now living.)
Is Eliot’s biographical account credible? Well, there are arguments to be found on both sides of the issue. On the side of plausibility, Eliot’s not a hack writer. He earned his MFA from the Columbia University School of the Arts, and then studied for a PhD in film history. It’s not clear if he actually earned the PhD at Columbia, but he knows his films and he’s written some generally praised biographies, including American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant: A Biography and Jimmy Stewart: A Biography. Eliot’s also packed Reagan: The Hollywood Years with an immense number of source notes, specific references and a detailed index.
In addition, at least one of the then young actresses who was said to have had a sexual fling with Reagan back in the day confirmed Eliot’s account after the book’s publication. On the flip side, a number of individuals have challenged the “facts” in this unique account, and Eliot more recently published a biography of Steve McQueen that many have found to be a bit implausible, to say the least. (There are better biographies of Steve McQueen.)
In Eliot’s version of his early life, Reagan was a minimally talented actor who became extremely well-known even though he was not even in the Top 40 actors of his time – one poll listing him as the 82nd favorite actor in 1939-40, when Clark Gable was number 1. But Reagan was always a lucky young man, always getting the right break at the right time, which brings to mind what Paul Newman was to call “Newman’s luck.” Mr. Reagan had Reagan’s luck.
“…he chose to spend most evening with young, willing and always beautiful starlets.”
This Reagan had a very contentious marriage to Jane Wyman. He once said to her, “We’ll lead an ideal life if you’ll just avoid doing one thing: Don’t think.” But his divorce from her almost destroyed him and led him to become a man who went through young starlets like a hot knife through butter. He also was at one time, allegedly, a man who loved his drink. In Eliot’s telling, Reagan sometimes met William Holden in the early evening at Ciro’s Nightclub on the Strip in West Hollywood where they would drink until the place closed.
Whether this all sounds plausible or not, it is one of Eliot’s most interesting accounts and it’s highlighted by some details that will not be found anywhere else. For example, Eliot writes about the run-ins that Reagan had with the Kennedy brothers going back several decades; information that I’ve never come across before.
In the end, this is what Newsweek termed “A fascinating portrait.” It may or may not be an accurate one; that’s not my decision to make. One of the fascinating tales told in Eliot’s version of events in the life of the young Ronald Reagan came about when Reagan blasted Motion Picture magazine for violating his privacy – something that had not bothered him previously – once he began dating one Nancy Davis. The magazine returned fire by printing an open letter to Mr. Reagan which sternly reminded him that, “Yours is a business, Mr. Reagan, which is built on publicity. In this sense, actors are like politicians…”
Recommended, with the caveat that for some reading this book will require a suspension of disbelief.
This book was purchased by the reviewer. Here is a link to our review of Marc Eliot’s bio of Clint Eastwood: https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/12/30/american-rebel-the-life-of-clint-eastwood/
The best biographies of Steve McQueen are Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel by Marshall Terrill, and Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of Hollywood Icon by Marshall Terrill and Peter O. Whitmer PhD.